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Thursday, April 23, 2009

TWITTER: Welcome to the Party

On my last podcast I indulged in an extended rant about Twitter and how the celebrities and SMEs are abusing it in my opinion. I haven't changed my mind, but at least I'm not as pissed off as I was.

So, to be fair, I ought to say what I think is the right way to behave on Twitter. First important thing to know: TWITTER IS NOT MICROBLOGGING. When all your Twitter options were straight-up Tweets and Direct Messages, maybe it was. Add in the option of @Replies, directed at a particular person but heard by anyone who cares to listen, it's not any sort of blog. It's a conversation.

I figure there are many different people with different reasons for being on Twitter. So the best tool for explaining good Twitter behavior is a metaphor that offers a number of contexts that cover the possibilities. The best one I've come up with is a cocktail party. It's not perfect, but metaphors are like that sometimes.

Notice, not a beer bust, not a frat party, not a convention, not a lecture, not a sales meeting. A cocktail party, like the ones you used to see on TV in the '60s and early '70s. The kind of parties for which people turned their basements into recreation rooms. In this case, we're talking about a much larger building, if you will, with many rooms. And
it's a free and open cocktail party. Everybody's invited, though not everybody will show up. I suppose this metaphor could be extended to other social media environments, but I think the others are much different.

Again, different people have different reasons for coming to the party, different goals they'd like to accomplish. If you're a celebrity, I'm sure you'd like to have every eye in the place on you. If you're a businessperson, I'm sure you'd like to be able to do some networking, maybe resolve some customer service issues, maybe even make contacts
that result in sales.

Now, if you're a celebrity, do you walk into a cocktail party and start demanding the attention of everyone in the place? If you're a business person, do you start striding through the party, interrupting conversations and shoving business cards into any available hand? No, because it'd be rude, and many people'd try to get as far away
from you as possible. Some of them might strike you about the head and shoulders. But naturally, I'd feel bad about it later.

If you're a politician, do you go stomping through the crowd, shaking random hands, kissing babies and passing out leaflets? Well, probably. But if only you're a just a politician and have no hope of people expecting better from you than from all the other candidates. Trust me, we don't expect much. But we always hope for more, and you have
an important opportunity you won't want to miss, if you are actually smarter than the average politician.

If you're that important, people will find you, and tell other folks they found you. If you aren't, acting like a jerk won't do anything very good for you. It'd probably get you some seriously bad press. And it would be well-deserved bad press. If people want to come listen to you talk, they'll do that. Otherwise, your best bet is to avoid ruining the party for everybody.

So what should you do? Well, as an intelligent, thinking human being, what would you do at that hypothetical cocktail party? You'd quietly let the word spread you were going to be there, you'd let the word spread that you've actually shown up, and you'd spend your time being interested in the other people there. Why? Because this is a unique opportunity for you to do that. If you're interested in them, they'll be interested in you. And they'll like you better, and not beat you about the head and shoulders.

They've heard your performance, your sales pitch, or your stump speech elsewhere. Some of them want a chance to get to know you. All of them want you, and everybody else, to get to know them, to hear their concerns, laugh at their jokes, look at their kids' pictures. You have lots of opportunities for people to hear you. They finally found their opportunity to have people hear them. Let them have that.

And if you listen to them, and occasionally mention how your life is like theirs in some ways, and different in others, that you have in common, what you don't have in common, then it's likely more of them will actually be willing to listen to you, ask you questions, and value your responses.

Likewise, in the context of the cocktail party, it's obvious why the behavior of spammers is just plain wrong. Even those who attempt subtlety are pushy and rude and blatantly phoney. Picture that same behavior at a wedding -- YOUR wedding! -- or a bar mitzvah, or a birthday party. You'd agree with everybody else they'd be acting like jerks, right? So why would you encourage or even tolerate that behavior at this particular party? And why the hell would you want to pay someone to act that way on your behalf?

Granted, this party's pretty big, and there's the option to walk away, what they call Unfollowing. But the other day, for example, I had a fella send a Reply to me and another guy, interrupting our conversation, with a spam message. He wasn't following either of us. I'd bet he'd done some sort of search for keywords, saw a keyword about what he
was selling in that one tweet, and sent the message with no idea what else we were saying. This is the equivalent of hearing one word across a crowded room between complete strangers, and running across the room to elbow your way in to pitch your product. And what were we discussing when he so rudely interrupted? We were discussing spam
and spammers, and how annoying they were. He didn't know that, and he didn't care. And that's happened to me twice in the last week. Sorry, started ranting again.

And what if you're not a celebrity, a business person, or a politician? At any big cocktail party, with celebrities, business people and politicians showing up, there will be some people who come just to rub elbows with the big names, people they've heard of. Nothing wrong with that. And there will be just Regular Folks who heard it might be interesting and fun.

If that describes you, start by taking a suggestion from Douglas Adams "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." DON'T PANIC! What would you do at that cocktail party? If you're smart, you check your coat at the door, grab a drink at the bar, and start looking around first. Sure, look to see if those celebrities you've heard about are around.
But wouldn't you also see if anyone you know is at the party? Maybe you want to hang with your friends, maybe even for the whole party. Nothing wrong with that.

I'll only cover two technical points to you new folks on Twitter. Any Tweet you post that is not an @reply can only be seen in three cases: If someone is following you; If someone is reading the Public Timeline, basically trying to read every Tweet from all the millions of folks on Twitter; or If someone does a search for some of the words you used. When you start, no one is following you. You can't send a Direct Message to someone who is not following you. So the only
way people will see what you have to say is if you send an @Reply to one of their Tweets.

Other than the technical aspects, if you don't know how to join in a conversation on Twitter, you don't know how to join a conversation anywhere. I think I probably manage okay. And I have Asperger Syndrome. So it can't be that hard to do it right.

How do you find other conversations? What would you do at the cocktail party? Wander around, drink in hand, and listen in on a few conversations. Profiles are a bit like really large nametags, I suppose. So check nametags, see if anyone does similar stuff to what you do. Searches are like eavesdropping, with no particular chance of folks noticing
you listening. If folks are discussing something that interests you, you're welcome to listen for a while, by following them, and maybe comment, by sending an @reply, if you stay on the topic they're discussing. If they're discussing fishing, don't walk up and say, "Hi, I'm Bob, and I sell shoes!"

Less obviously, don't walk up and say, "Hi, I'm Bob, and I sell fishing tackle!" If they were looking for someone who sold fishing tackle, they'd have come searching for you or a dozen others like you. Do you like to fish? Why not join the conversation talking about fishing, the topic already being discussed? The fact that you actually -sell- fishing tackle can come up later, of course, casually, in passing.You'll note I say conversation is okay. I've read lots of blogposts saying Twitter isn't for conversation. Lots of folks seem to think Twitter is for really short monologues, that's why they call it "microblogging." I disagree strongly. I think it's only for conversation.

You can try to do a monologue. If people are willing to listen to your monologues, they'll follow you. If they find those monologues interesting, they may well continue following you, and if they don't, they won't. And don't be surprised if they start a conversation in spite of your intention.

If you want to deliver a monologue, start a blog, or start a podcast. That's what I did, and it isn't hard.

Twitter is a conversation, where no one is compelled to talk, no one is compelled to listen to anyone they choose not to hear, and everyone has to stop for breath after two or three sentences, and let other folks say their piece. That's the way every good conversation has to be, in my humble opinion. And if you're a celebrity or a businessperson
or a politician who doesn't like that sort of conversation, you know where the door is. Don't forget your coat on the way out.


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